Author’s note – this piece is a companion to “Affirmative Action Committee members call on WV Democratic Leader Biafore to resign,” providing the back history of the issue at hand.
Why is the West Virginia Democratic Affirmative Action Committee calling for West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Belinda Biafore to resign? The issue boils down to one paragraph in the West Virginia Democratic Party’s bylaws.
“The Affirmative Action [Committee] shall draft, and the Executive Committee shall promptly adopt an Affirmative Action and Outreach Plan to implement a program that will increase opportunity and diversity in the WVDP,” reads the bylaws. “The program will provide for representation on the Executive Committee as nearly as practicable of the aforementioned groups, as indicated by their presence in the Democratic electorate based on data derived by the DNC. This program shall include specific goals and timetables to achieve this purpose.”
On June 3, the Executive Committee voted to approve an Affirmative Action and Outreach plan. The plan explains:
“We are a Party built on principles of the democratic process and fully recognize that our strength and effectiveness flow directly from a commitment to the ideal of full and active participation, and inclusion rather than exclusion. Our future as a political party, a state, and society is built on these principles. The West Virginia Democratic Party, through its Affirmative Action Committee, encourages full participation by all Democrats, with particular concern for minority groups, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian /Pacific Islanders, Latinos, Women, Youth (under the age of 36), LGBTQ+, seniors, and individuals with disabilities in the Delegate Selection process and in all Party Affairs, as defined in the DNC charter and bylaws. In order to continue the Democratic Party’s ongoing efforts to include groups historically under-represented in the Democratic Party’s affairs, by virtue of race, ethnicity identity, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, economic status, or disability, West Virginia has developed Party outreach programs. Such programs include recruitment, education and training to achieve full participation by such groups and diversity in the delegate selection process and at all levels of Party affairs.”
Then what is the issue? The plan had zero input from any of the groups it seeks to elevate the voices of.
“We had no input on this plan. We weren’t asked our opinion,” said Hollis Lewis, cochair of the black caucus. “You can’t draft something on behalf of us. We just now threw these affirmative action committees together within the last two or three weeks — we’ve had no time to review the plan, we didn’t see the plan. We should be able, at the very least, to have a thorough review of it before a vote takes place on it.”
Selina Vickers, a member of the Democratic Party’s grassroots reform movement, explained that the party should have begun this process nearly 50 years ago, rather than the night before the plan was due.
“The national Charter, adopted in 1974, mandated that all state Democratic parties adopt and implement affirmative action outreach programs to provide for representation of historically underrepresented groups as indicated by their presence in the Democratic electorate,” explained Vickers. “If this had been done almost 50 years ago, and if it had been done at any point during Biafore’s leadership (which started in 2015), then please explain why, as far as we can tell, there was not one Black American on the State Executive Committee until February 2020?”
A challenge filed against the state party by the grassroots reformers “raised concerns about how the State Party has conducted its delegate selection process, including issues” around “affirmative action and outreach to traditionally underrepresented groups.” Challenges included lack of notice for meetings and elections, lack of diversity, lack of being equally divided among gender, and lack of an Affirmative Action Plan.
A memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in July 2020 by Biafore, the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the DNC, and Selina Vickers on behalf of challenges, specified that new rules addressing these issues would be due and approved by February 15. Following that, the new affirmative action plan would be due by May 15.
By April 30, however, the Affirmative Action Committee and diversity caucuses had not yet met. An email from Robert Ofsa, an executive committee member, to Biafore and representatives of the state party, asking when the committees would meet before the deadline in two weeks.
“I have emailed you multiple times asking for information about the WV Democratic Party diversity caucuses and Affirmative Action Committee and have received absolutely NO information,” Ofsa sent at 10:10 a.m. on April 30. “Not only as an elected member of the WV Democratic Executive Committee but as a Democrat wanting the build our party, I have a right to know about these committees and caucuses and either participate or encourage participation by others. … So, yet again, I ask you to send me and the other Executive Committee members all the information about the Affirmative Action Committee and diversity caucuses and how to participate. The goal of the MOU and the new Bylaw amendments is to be open, transparent, and encourage full participation of all Democrats in all party affairs. We cannot do that without any information.”
An hour and a half later, Biafore sent out an email with Zoom links for caucus meetings on May 3, 4, 5, and 6. She notes that “as a result of the current Covid-19 virus public health emergency, it is not possible for the WV Democratic Party Affirmative Action Committee to meet in person. Virtual zoom meetings listed below is an opportunity to take part in the process.”
Although some of the caucuses were able to meet before the first full Affirmative Action Committee meeting, not all were able to. A request for an extension on the Affirmative Action Plan was submitted to the DNC, pushing the deadline from May 15 to June 4, the day after the contentious Executive Committee meeting.
“Over the last year, we have worked very hard to make things and changes happen,” said
Biafore. “We have met all of our goals that we need to present to the rules and bylaws committee. Our deadline is tomorrow. When we first adopted this plan, the affirmative action committee as we know it now, was not in place. I certainly didn’t expect them to come up with a plan overnight.”
Biafore’s email to the Affirmative Action Committee members scheduling the Affirmative Action Committee to meet for the first time, states “the Affirmative Action Committee shall draft, and the Executive Committee shall promptly adopt an Affirmative Action and Outreach Plan to implement a program that will increase opportunity and diversity in the [West Virginia Democratic Party]. The call for the Affirmative Action Committee will be on June 2, 2021 and you should have received notice and call in information. Only members of the Affirmative Action Committee will be on the call.”
If that is the case, then why is there an issue? The same email also reads “please find attached a copy of proposed bylaws and a draft of the Affirmative Action plan that will be voted on by the WV Democratic Executive Committee on June 3. Please understand this is a draft and simply a starting point.” The affirmative action committee did not approve of a plan without their input, the group that is supposed to draft the plan in the first place.
“Every member of the Affirmative Action Committee outright rejected the plan Biafore sent to them 5 days before by email and did not even ask them for input,” Vickers explained. “She informed them it would be voted on by the Executive Committee in the email and in their meeting on June 2. The AA Committee was adamant that they were not included and wanted time to develop the plan, as they were mandated to do. A major issue of concern for them was that there were 3 diversity groups that needed to have input and they had not yet met to form their caucus. Specifically, the Latin American and Asian American/Pacific Islander caucuses were scheduled twice and canceled twice by Biafore, and the Native American caucus was never scheduled. Biafore’s plan was not created in a fair and transparent manner.”
Objecting to the plan’s passage during the June 3 Executive Committee meeting, Susan Miley noted several caucus’s had not yet been able to meet or establish their chairpersons.
“We haven’t even met as a Latino caucus,” said Miley. “It’s just hard for me to comprehend this at this point when I feel like I’m the one Hispanic in the entire state anyway. I’m on this committee and I would never want anyone at this point, in the Democratic Party, in West Virginia, feel as though they are not being listened to, even if it is just the draft. Are we going to get in so much trouble that they kick us out of the national Democratic caucus … when you guys say ‘hey, we had some very strong beliefs by the people of color, who are less than five percent of our state, really, really just wanted to have a voice in the draft, and we decided to let them because we care about their voices.’”
The Affirmative Action and Outreach plan backs up Maroney’s point — of the nine diversity caucus’s, several do not have chairs listed:
West Virginia Democratic Women’s Caucus — Co-Chairs: Marlene Midget and Marilyn Monahan
West Virginia Democratic Youth Caucus — Co-Chairs: Aryanna Islam and Jarryd Powell
Democratic Black Caucus Of West Virginia — Co-Chairs: Mary-Ann Claytor and Hollis Lewis
Individuals With Disabilities — Co-Chairs: Rusty Williams and Kelly Elkins
LGBTQ+ Democrats Of West Virginia — Co-Chairs: Delegate Cody Thompson and Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum Latino Democrats Of West Virginia — no chairs listed
Asian American/Pacific Islander Democrats — no chairs listed
Native American Democrats Of West Virginia — no chairs listed
Senior Democrats Of West Virginia — Co-Chairs: Bob Baker and Mary Thorp
The explosive Executive Committee meeting, previously covered by The West Virginia Daily News, saw new members of the Executive Committee nominated to represent the Affirmative Action caucuses locked out, not able to make motions. The final few moments of the meeting have frequently been used by media outlets to summarize the entire meeting:
“We didn’t get a chance for if anyone else wanted to make amendments,” said Mary Ann Claytor.
“We’ve discussed this around and around. We’ve moved that we’ve put it to a vote, so that’s what we’re going to do,” Biafore said.
“Oh okay so that means we don’t have any voice in this,” Claytor responded. “I don’t even know why y’all have a caucus.”
“As a member of the Black community, this is a slap in the face,” Lewis said.
“I move we adjourn,” said Nick Casey, just before the motion was approved and the meeting ended.
A motion to table the plan rejected by the Affirmative Action Plan was rejected in a vote by the Democratic Executive Committee. Among the votes to table the plan were members of the Affirmative Action Committee and Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin. Among the nays were former delegate Jeff Campbell and _______.
A major reason for the yes votes was to comply with the deadline set by the MOU. A second request for extension on the Affirmative Action plan was denied.
“An hour ago [the DNC] denied [a second] extension,” said Rod Snyder during the meeting. “I [don’t] know how to state that any more clearly. I’m tired, this has been emotional. I appreciate where everyone is coming from, but I’m speaking up because I do not think we can afford to not meet the terms of the MOU.”
However, looking at the letter denying the second extension raises more questions. Signed by RBC cochairs Jim Roosevelt and Lorraine Miller, the plan suggests the national party thought the Affirmative Action plan was written by the Affirmative Action Committees.
“We granted an extension on May 4, 2021, to allow for the State Party to finalize implementation by June 4, 2021,” reads the June 3 letter from the Rules and Bylaws Committee. “We are denying this request because our view is that the State Party does not need more time to implement the provisions of the new Bylaws. It is our understanding that the Affirmative Action Committee met last night and the Executive Committee will meet tonight to consider a proposed Affirmative Action and Outreach Plan as well as the At-Large members who were nominated by the Affirmative Action Committee. The State Party has demonstrated its commitment to expand its outreach and include underrepresented constituencies into our Party. We support their efforts and hope that everyone can work together towards the shared goal of making the Party open to all.”
As noted by Vickers, the Affirmative Action Committee rejected the plan approved by the Executive Committee.
Since then, a meeting between the committees and Biafore was held, as covered by The West Virginia Daily News on Friday, June 11. Since then, the Affirmative Action Committee released a joint statement:
All the members of the newly formed WV Democratic Party Affirmative Action Committee met with the chair of the party, Belinda Biafore, Del. Doug Skaff, and Sen. Stephen Baldwin today via Zoom to discuss recent events and hopefully address how to move the party forward following the disastrous June 3rd Executive Committee meeting.
During the two-hour meeting, Chair Biafore did not offer an apology for her actions. After discussions stalled with no acknowledgment of wrongdoing from the Chairwoman, several members of the AA Committee asked her for her resignation, noting that she could not possibly be the one to move the Party forward.
Chair Biafore refused.
The AA Committee presented a list of action items that, if she were serious, would demonstrate Chair Biafore’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. The chairwoman said that she would bring those items back to the Executive Committee for review but could not make any guarantees. Some items would need the approval of the Executive Committee, but many items were within Chair Biafore’s authority to implement immediately such as reconstituting the Board of Appeals, which is an important Board to hear grievances, and which currently has no diversity membership. Biafore would not commit to any specific action item. Senator Baldwin provided Chair Biafore with the list via email the day before.
The AA Committee has a mandate to develop an Affirmative Action Outreach Plan to provide for representation of historically underrepresented groups.
We take that mandate seriously and are working on a plan to be inclusive to all that want to participate.
However, we do not have faith in Chair Biafore’s ability to move the Party forward, but will do our part to fulfill our mandate.
Both parties left the meeting with Delegate Skaff asking Chair Biafore to convene the Executive Committee to get commitment to diversity and inclusion from the state party. The Bylaws provide that Biafore can call a special meeting at any time at her discretion.
Part of the Affirmative Action Committee’s demands include adherence to the basic elements for an open party, established in the WVDP bylaws. These include the prohibition of discrimination, effective notice of meetings, and requiring party activities to commerce “at the lowest level” and continue “up” to the state Executive Committee.